The Airfix Military Series
Airfix first began to produce figures in HO/OO scale, a size compatible with their burgeoning ranges of railway and military vehicles. It wasn’t until 1969, a decade later, that they introduced their first set of larger figures in 1:32 scale. 31 different sets were created up to 1983, mainly of military figures from the Napoleonic Wars, Wild West, WW2 and Cold War eras. In other words, classic toy soldier subjects. A selection of vehicles and buildings was also produced.
The figures were, like their smaller compatriots, moulded in polythene and sold in boxed sets. With their reasonable price and good accuracy and animation, they quickly dominated the market. Competitors tended to follow in their footsteps, and their figures were widely pirated.
Airfix generally described the range in catalogues and on boxes as the ‘Military Series’ – a rather vague title, but nonetheless as the official moniker I’ll stick with it. Most importantly, the range should not be confused with the figures that Airfix produced to the same scale, but as polystyrene kits – the ‘Multipose’ sets of World War 2 infantry, and the ‘Collector’s Series’ of soldiers through history.
Released in 1976, the ‘Modern British Infantry’ set embodies many of the typical features of the range.
British Infantry of the 1970s
After World War 2, the British army quickly reduced in size. During the 1950s and 1960s, there were a number of colonial and post-colonial operations, but the succeeding decade was a relatively quiet one for the British infantry, with little opportunity for combat and the dreary stresses of deployment to Northern Ireland to contend with. As a result, the British Army of the 1970s was perhaps a somewhat uninspiring subject for Airfix to model. The Falklands War and involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan were to come later.
The main commitment during the Cold War was to the British Army on the Rhine, the force-in-being stationed in West Germany to resist any Soviet attack. This commitment kept numbers high, so that in 1970, the army numbered roughly 176,000 (which is numerous compared to the present-day strength of around 80,000).
Most of the combat troops were infantry. The infantry of the 1970s was a radically different force from that which had fought the World War. Not only was it a professional force, but it was mechanised and expected to fight in all-arms groups with advanced weapons, often from armoured personnel carriers. Recruitment efforts during the 1970s (see poster above) stressed the professionalism and diverse career opportunities offered by the Army. Without an active enemy to fight, there must have seemed little point in appealing to duty or raw patriotism.
The Airfix Modern British Infantry
Airfix 51572-8 Modern British Infantry
Year first produced:1976
L55xW35xH55, Plastic 4g (av), Scale 1:32, Features: 0
The figures in this set are single-piece mouldings with integral bases in polythene plastic. The box contains 14 figures, a halving of the contents that had previously applied (29 figures) to these sets introduced in 1978. There are 7 poses, which is a standard number found throughout the range, except on the rare occasions that the number was increased.
The poses include
- A single prone figure (presumably an officer or NCO) using binoculars
- Three figures standing aiming and firing their rifles
- Three figures firing their rifles from the hip
- Two figures advancing with rifles
- Two figures holding rifles but throwing grenades
- Two figures walking with LMG
- One figure kneeling firing a Carl Gustav recoilless rifle
The weaponry modelled is fairly accurate and depicts the firepower immediately available to a typical infantry section of the period. All the figures are well-modelled with good definition and realistic animation. Apart from the prone figure and the machine gunner, the poses are active suggesting the figures are engaged in combat, which would also explain their light order. The figures stand firmly on their plastic bases.
As might be expected with soft polythene figures, there is a little bending at the extremities, especially the thin rifle tips which can break off if roughly handled. Mould lines and ejector marks are present but not very prominent. If painted, the figures will no doubt look very effective.
The figures come in a sturdy cardboard box of the same dimensions as those used for the Airfix HO/OO range. The front carries all the information necessary to identify the product (the maker, subject, scale and the number of pieces). This information is repeated on the sides, while on the back are a set of trilingual instructions for painting, with a descriptive paragraph about the subject.
The box makes it clear that “To ensure a clean painting surface it is advisable to wash with detergent before using colours.” Essential advice, since otherwise the paint would inevitably fail to adhere and flake off! Which colours should you use? A smallish illustration of a typical figure is a guide, but as there is no key it’s difficult to interpret and colour-blind customers (like me) are left none the wiser.
Of course, it could be said, that few people nowadays would want a set of British infantry from the mid-1970s. ‘Modern’ is a label that goes out of date so quickly! Nevertheless, the set illustrates why the Military Series figures were so popular. They were cheap, easily available, attractive and well-made. There were other approaches to making toy soldiers – see here for a comparable set of infantry from a rival – but most of the competition followed the path that Airfix had established. As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Airfix released four sets of Cold War infantry. The other three were 51473 Modern German Infantry, 9-51580 Modern Russians and 9-51579 Modern US NATO. Thus, it wasn’t until the Russians arrived in 1983, that the British had some opponents to fight!
In the complementary range of military vehicles there were two military trucks that might have transported our infantry: the 1763 Bedford RL Truck and 1807 Alvis Stalwart. Airfix did not, however, produce an armoured personnel carrier such as the FV432 or Warrior to carry them into the combat area.